Lots of artists bemoan the fact that their work is undervalued. When they adjust their prices downward, to sell anything at all, their work is regarded as cheap and is thus treated with a modicum of barely concealed contempt. Why is this and what can be done about it?
I came across this very interesting article about why we tend to hate cheap things. It actually informs what’s going on with why art and artists are undervalued.
The tl;dr summary of the article is that our appreciation of value has been distorted by the scarcity of money, the industrial revolution and what gets advertised.
The False Connection between Prices and Value
When we have to pay a lot for something nice – a good meal at a decent restaurant or a well-made, durable, useful tool – we appreciate it to the full. Oddly though, if the price of the thing falls, our enthusiasm and passion for it tends to fade away. Think about second hand cars. Often, they’re still amazing pieces of machinery, but as their market value slides, so we begin to see the once expensive car, which we lavished our attention on, when it was new, as something less valuable (an odd inversion happens, once the car is perceived as a classic, but we’ll get to that later).
We blithely throw a Smartphone away, which barely 18 months ago was considered to be the very pinnacle of technology and the coolest thing to own, because its battery loses the ability to hold charge and we don’t know how to replace it. Why? Because the price of an 18 month old Smartphone is next to nothing, despite its unarguably astonishing capabilities, relative to what we had even five years ago (let alone for the rest of human history), due to the introduction of newer and very slightly improved models.
It goes without saying that if the object has little merit to begin with; a high price isn’t going to make us value it highly. A pig in lipstick is still a pig. However, if something has real virtue, but a low price, then it is in danger of falling into grievous neglect. Antiques are a perfect example. Some of these objects are still examples of astonishing, matchless craftsmanship, using the best materials, which self-evidently have proven to be durable, yet if priced cheaply, they are treated as mere chattels; discarded and abused. Most of the films of the silent era were sold (and destroyed) for the value of the silver in the emulsion on the film stock, rather than for their artistry, which is now lost forever.
The same thing applies to experiences, too. Whereas climbing Everest was once seen as the supreme experience and something exceedingly rare and exotic, nowadays you can’t move on the summit, for parties of identikit climbers. The view from an airplane window underwent a similar economic miracle that led to a psychological catastrophe. Once the cost of experiencing the view that only a God could previously see dropped to the point where you could experience it for the price of a budget airline ticket, it ceased to matter, even though its real value hadn’t changed at all. We just stopped marvelling at it, or even noticing it.
Why is this? Why do we associate cheap prices with a lack of value?
It’s a hangover from our long pre-industrial past. For most of human history, there truly was a strong correlation between cost and value. The higher the price, the better things tended to be. This was because there simply was no way, technologically, for prices to be low and quality to be high. Only the cleverest bloke in the village could make certain items and it had taken him a lifetime of painstaking experimentation and repetition to learn how. Everything was made by hand, because it had to be. There was no other way to make things. Making had to be done by expensively trained artisans (made more scarce by the Guild system), with raw materials that were sometimes exotic and immensely difficult to source and transport. If you bought an expensive sword, jacket, window, sewing needle or wheelbarrow, in pre-industrial times, they simply always were the better ones.
This relationship between price and value held true, uninterrupted, for centuries, until the end of the 18th century. Then, as a consequence of steam power and mechanisation (i.e. the Industrial Revolution), something unprecedented in human history was accomplished. Human beings worked out ingenious ways to make high quality goods at cheap prices, on the back of new technology (i.e. knowledge) and new methods of organising (and exploiting) the labour force.
A new myth was born – that of fully mechanised production. Artisan skills were devalued and the industrial workforce de-skilled. Now, mere children could preside over the production of the finest cloth, provided they were working in a steam-driven mill, equipped with superbly and ingeniously engineered weaving machines. Nails and screws, once quite scarce and all individually handmade, were now produced in uniform batches of thousands, daily.
If you lived in a pre-industrial, craft-based society, the quality of any object invariably depended upon how much skilled labour went into producing it. An artisan that took longer to produce an object did so because they were making a finer object. Such artisans were rare and took decades to perfect their craft. Because they were especially skilled, they produced objects that were stronger, lighter, more durable, better balanced or more cleverly designed. The clocks they produced told time more reliably. Even today, there are no violin makers with a reputation for quality equivalent to that of Antonio Stradivarius.
It was a general principle. The more expensive garment would be more durable, warmer and more elegantly decorated than a cheaper version. A more expensive window would let in more light, keep out more draughts, open more easily, and last in good condition much longer than its less expensive rivals: it would be a more skilfully made product constructed from more durable materials.
On the back of this long experience, an entrenched cultural association has formed between the rare, the expensive and the good. Each has come rapidly to suggest the other, and the natural-seeming converse is that things which are widely available and inexpensive come to be seen as unimpressive or unexciting. We value things in a pre-industrial way. Almost.
Value Comparisons Based on Alternatives
Art is no longer rare. There is a lot of it being made, by very skilled amateurs, in the main. It’s still crafted carefully and painstakingly, often with excellent materials and the work of any individual artist is still rare, but we compare oil paintings with mass-produced prints and digital selfies (they’re all just decorative images, to most people, after all).
We compare great pieces of music with pirated copies that cost nothing to reproduce and are available seemingly everywhere. The better the distribution system for art, so that it comes to be seen as widely available and the more competitive artists become with each other, so that some give their art away for free, for exposure, the more it comes to be seen as if art ought to be inexpensive.
Once art is perceived to be something that is cost-free to produce and distribute, available ubiquitously, then it becomes unimpressive and unexciting, too. Consumers of art make unsound comparisons. They ignore what it really took to produce it.
We tend to value art on what it costs to make, pretending it’s about the cost of the machine woven canvas and mass-manufactured paints and factory-made brushes, but it’s really about the humanity in the work, the time to learn and apply the skills and the value of the emotional experience invested in it.
Consumers tend to value the art on the basis of what the alternatives cost to make, not the art itself. When you consider the emotional impact of stolen music, a widely copied photograph (with or without the photographer’s permission) or an endlessly reproduced print of a famous painting, they may have a point. Is the handmade, lovingly-crafted piece of art actually capable of reaching the emotions of consumers any more effectively than the mass-produced, digitally-copied image or song? Does the rip-off copy have the same emotional connection to the consumer?
As a society, we have fallen into undervaluing craftsmanship and things made by hand, because we believe they are or could be made by machine. In some cases, the machine-made object is arguably of finer quality than the handmade equivalent (for example, dress maker’s pins or sewing needles).
An example of assuming goods are machine-made is Chinese or Indonesian sourced electric guitars. They’re all handmade, in reality, but now by people that are only in a position to work for barely subsistence wages, such are their societies, laws, unions and national economies. Consumers think these electric guitars are made by machine, in soulless mega factories, under computer control, but they’re actually made by human hands, showering care, attention and skill on them. Sometimes, these artisans are paid so poorly that even they can’t afford to lavish any of the necessary time on the objects they make, to ensure high quality. They have aggressive production targets to meet.
Chinese and Indonesian made guitars are sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars/pounds less than so-called “boutique” brands, or American made equivalents, but the materials and components are often directly comparable and the workmanship is frequently superior to that of the more expensive guitars. Because we believe they’re machine-made, we think of them as lacking in intrinsic value. Our value perceptions are distorted.
The Influence of Scarcity
In principle, industrialisation was supposed to undo these connections between price and value. The price would fall and widespread happiness would follow, because we could all afford to own nice things of high quality. As high quality objects entered the mass market, excellence would be democratised.
This promised to be an exciting epoch and enthusiastic evangelists regularly proclaimed a new age, where universal political suffrage would be accompanied by material dignity and honour for every social class.
It didn’t happen this way.
To quote the article I referenced at the beginning of this post, “The tragedy for our relationship to money is that the hierarchy operates in favour of the expensive things, which means that very often we end up feeling that we can’t afford good things and that our lives are therefore sad and fatefully incomplete. The money hierarchy is constantly making us feel impoverished, while the hidden truth is that there are in fact more good things within our grasp than we believe (and tend to notice only when we are dying or recovering from a bad illness). We are rich enough to purchase the superlative egg of the chicken; but we don’t experience our wealth here; we are left lamenting our inability to buy the hugely expensive (but not actually much nicer) egg of the almost infertile and evasive Iranian sturgeon (caviar).” In other words, the money hierarchy blinds us to the riches well within our grasp.
What is a more realistic way to value things, then, if not by their price? You can find the answer by observing the reactions of children to everyday objects. If young enough, they don’t understand money or prices, so are unmoved by both, in relation to the objects that draw their fascination. Have you ever noticed how enthralled a four year old can be with the most commonplace of things? Kids love puddles. They can spend hours messing with them, completely delighted by their intrinsic properties. Favourite toys are often not the most expensive and finely made ones; they’re things that stimulate their curiosity and imagination, which are often inexpensive (or free). Sometimes, the most exciting part of the toy is the package it came in.
To quote the article again:
“This attitude allows them (children) to be entranced by objects which have long ago ceased to hold our wonder. If asked to put a price on things, children tend to answer by the utility and charm of an object, not its manufacturing costs. This leads to unusual but – we recognise – more rightful results. A child might guess that a stapler costs a hundred pounds and would be deeply surprised, even shocked, to learn that a USB memory stick can be had for just over one pound. Children would be right, if prices were determined by human worth and value, but they’re not; they just reflect what things cost to make.”
Often, what something costs to make is depressed by the extent to which resources were obtained through exploitation, intimidation or deception, on the part of the company that obtained them, while ignoring the cost of externalities, such as environmental harm and the irreversible depletion of non-renewable resources, which accompany their manufacture. We arrive at the absurd situation whereby, because a thing is priced cheaply, we are prepared to discard it wantonly, since we don’t value it, while simultaneously paying a huge (but largely hidden) environmental price for both producing and disposing of the item.
The pity is, therefore, that we treat prices as a guide to what matters, when this isn’t what a financial price should ever be used for.
Learning to Appreciate Again
A way to redress the distortions of price on value is to learn to appreciate like children, again.
“We can pay less attention to what things cost and more to our own responses. The people who have most to teach us here are artists. They are the experts at recording and communicating their enthusiasms which, like children, can take them in slightly unexpected directions. The French artist Paul Cézanne spent a good deal of the late nineteenth century painting groups of apples in his studio in Provence. He was thrilled by their texture, shapes and colours. He loved the transitions between the yellowy golds and the deep reds across their skins. He was an expert at noticing how the generic word ‘apple’ in fact covers an infinity of highly individual examples. Under his gaze, each one becomes its own planet, a veritable universe of distinctive colour and aura – and hence sources of real delight and solace.
Cézanne in his studio was generating his own revolution, not an industrial revolution that would make once costly objects available to everyone, but a Revolution in Appreciation, a far deeper process, that would get us to notice what we already have to hand. Instead of reducing prices, he is raising levels of appreciation; which is a move that is perhaps more precious to us economically – because it means that we can suddenly get a lot more great things for very little money.”
Appreciation is where it is at. We’re beginning to see this in the way that obsolete objects, once thought valueless, are now attracting appreciative new consumers. Think about classic cars, where the intrinsic value of their design and engineering qualities are fully appreciated by the nostalgic cognoscenti and vinyl records, which remain a marvellous, immersive and engaging way to experience the emotional impact of music, far superior in many ways, in fact, to the experience obtainable from CDs or streaming music services.
The Role of Advertising
Advertising has distorted our appreciation capacities. It’s because of what advertising has focused on making us appreciate. We have biased our appreciation toward objects that are advertised well.
“The only problem with advertising is that it isn’t done for enough things, or indeed the things that would be most helpful and convenient for us to appreciate. People who attack advertising get it slightly wrong: the problem is not that we love BMWs, but that so much of our love and awe has been siphoned in that direction and hasn’t been properly excited in other, more realistic areas.
We need an advertising pursued with the same sense of drama and intensity and ambition but directed towards biros, puddles and olives. The reason this doesn’t happen isn’t sinister or profound. It’s just we haven’t yet found a way to pay the enormous sums required to glamorise lower priced objects, through advertising.”
This provides a solid reason for artists taking the need to promote the benefits of their art to their audience more seriously. Unless you can make a case for your art comparable to the case advertising makes for BMWs, you’re going to struggle to assert its value. Can that be done, without a gigantic advertising budget? I believe you can do better than most artists are doing, where self-promotion is concerned.
Raising the Value of Our Art
Is there a way to raise the value of the art we make and how we are valued as artists? There could be, but the path is by no means easy or straight forward.
“Our reluctance to be excited by inexpensive things isn’t a fixed debility of human nature. It’s just a current cultural misfortune. We all naturally used to know the solution as children. The ingredients of the solution are intrinsically familiar. We get hints of what should happen in the art gallery and in front of adverts. We need to rethink our relationship to prices. The price of something is principally determined by what it cost to make, not how much human value is potentially to be derived from it. We have been looking at prices in the wrong way: we have fetishised prices as tokens of intrinsic value, we have allowed them to set how much excitement we are allowed to have in given areas, how much joy is to be mined in particular places. But prices were never meant to be like this: we are breathing too much life into them, and therefore dulling too many of our responses to the inexpensive world.”
The purpose of music (and probably all art) is to change the emotional state of the listener/observer. That’s its intrinsic value. People like art because they respond to it at a very deep level. In fact, it has been recently shown that there are neurons that respond only to music, not to other sounds. There is a deep connection between an emotionally affective piece of art and how we feel, as human beings. We value many of the feelings evoked, such as nostalgia, love, freedom, hope, melancholy and so on. We like our art to remind us of who we are and of life events we wish to cherish or even remember with sadness.
So, what should an artist do? Raise the price of your work. That seems counter intuitive, because you might feel that less people can afford to buy it, at higher prices, but unless you charge what you believe it to be worth, you are going to experience the effect of value being degraded by cheapness. You aren’t doing anybody any favours offering your art to friends at mate’s rates. For your art to be valuable, it has to be priced at what it’s worth, irrespective of what it cost to produce.
You can also take steps to increase its intrinsic value. How much emotional change or fascination can you cause, through your art? Incidentally, this explains why so much expensive art uses the cheap trick of trying to shock, which is now so overused; it has lost much of its emotional impact. Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” is valued highly not because it is a particularly cleverly or intricately constructed piece of art, demonstrating amazing technical skill, but more because of the shock it represents and causes in the ordinary observer. The fact that what is just an ordinary bed, littered with various commonplace, domestic objects, is valued as “high art”, is part of the shock and outrage.
It helps to do things that increase the appreciation of your work. Make it rare. Make its availability or introduction to an audience an event, worthy of attendance. Promote your art as worthy of remark, attention and pause for thought. Encourage appreciators to spread the word. Do whatever you can to make your art and your story, as an artist, fascinating. Always make much better art. Above all, try to make your art peerless, irreplaceable and essential to the consumer. If you can do that, you can begin to undo the price-value distortions and swing them in your favour.
As an artist, become incomparable, so that there is no alternative. Be as original, accomplished and technically skilled as you can. Then assert it. Van Halen’s music succeeded, in part, because there was nobody else quite like Dave Lee Roth, as a showy front man, and nobody could (then) play quite like Edward Van Halen. As more people copied, the value of Van Halen’s music reduced (and the whole “Hair Metal” genre ensued). Freddie Mercury and Brian May are analogous reasons why the band Queen succeeded. There was nobody else quite like either of them.
“There are two ways to get richer: one is to make more money; and the second is to discover that more of the things we could love are already to hand (thanks to the miracles of the Industrial Revolution). We are, astonishingly, already a good deal richer than we are encouraged to think we are.”
The trick, for the artist that produces art for sale, is to demonstrate to potential buyers that there is unique art they could love, which they can afford, but which is valuable, available only from them.
To make your art more valuable, do whatever you can to ensure that it is first appreciated. Help people understand and value the artistic miracle you have set forth before them. Differentiate it from cheaper alternatives. Find ways to assert the intrinsic value of your work – its emotional impact.